Elegia prima. English translation. Back to Latin text. Open Latin text in new window.

Introduction. This poem, the first in a series of Latin elegies, responds to a letter from Milton's school friend and companion, Charles Diodati (see French 1.98-105). Written in the spring of 1626, the first elegy is, on the one hand, an adolescent condemnation of unfair treatment at the hands of "harsh tutors," and on the other, an attempt at appearing nonchalant about a penalty that must have been taken seriously by the poem's author. Though we are not certain of the specific cause, Milton was rusticated from Cambridge University during the Lent term of 1626. It is thought that the young Milton came into conflict with his tutor, William Chappell (Douglas Bush in Variorum 1.44) and was punished by a brief separation from the school.

Before discussing the Elegy, a brief introduction to Milton's relationship with Charles Diodati and Diodati's family history will be useful. Though Milton's father was quite successful and amassed sufficient wealth so that his son would not have to work, the family was by no means aristocratic. The Diodatis, by contrast, were connected to the Italian aristocracy, with intimate associations with the Pope and The Holy Roman Emperor. Charles's grandfather, Carlo Diodati, though, became sympathetic to Protestantism and converted (see Dorian). The family was immediately branded "heretic" by the church and was forced to flee to Geneva (Dorian 23). Upon coming of age, Carlo's son, Theodore, decided to study medicine, but finding the schools in Geneva unsuitable, decided to study at Leyden instead. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Theodore relocated to England where he eventually resumed his study of medicine and began practice some years later. In England, Theodore met and married the "English lady of good birth and fortune" who was to be Charles's mother (Dorian 51). It is not entirely clear at what age Charles entered St. Paul's, but we do know that the friendship between Milton and the young Diodati developed and cemented itself quickly. The relationship they cultivated was based on classical ideals of a perfect friendship between virtuous equals. It was sustained over several decades, even through periods of separation, by a series of letters, written in Latin (by Milton) and Greek (by Diodati). Elegy 1, Elegy 6, and Sonnet 4 might be read as epistolary poems in this conversation between friends.

Elegy 1 opens with an excited acknowledgement that Diodati's long-awaited letter has arrived and praises the "fit" companion Milton enjoys in Diodati. Though Milton's pride must have been wounded at being sent home, he tells Diodati that, in fact, his exile is quite pleasant because he is finally free to read as he pleases without the interference of overbearing instructors. In his indignation, Milton even condemns Cambridge as a place unsuitable for "Phoebus's sons," or those pursuing the high art of poetry. Despite independently continuing his studies while at his father's home, Milton still finds time to go to the theater. He finds great enjoyment watching the shape-shifting actors tell their stories in spite of (because of?) the vague infernal undertone of the theater and its denizens. He takes pleasure in experiencing the range of emotions comedy and tragedy provoke and finds value in catharsis. Theater and academics, though they take much of Milton's time, do not occupy his every moment.

The letter is written in the spring, and, not surprisingly, Milton has things other than books on his mind. He exuberantly tells his friend of the beautiful young English women he sees in London and in the grassy areas outside London. He goes so far as to proclaim English women the most beautiful on Earth. The hyperbole with which he speaks should be excused; he is a young university student enjoying spring with the additional motive of trying to appear to be entirely content where he is.

As the elegy moves toward its end, Milton praises the wonder of his native London above all other cities, imagining it as the beacon to which all the world looks. For all his high language, though, we doubt Milton's sincerity. The elegy closes with a quick and excited passage indicating that he is returning to Cambridge soon. One cannot help but smile at imagining the young Milton trying to sound happy in his exile while he is eagerly packing his bags to return to the university. Though his love for his childhood home is evident and genuine, Milton tries to appear stoic and learned in a letter written to a school friend he would like very much to impress with his poise and studied disaffection. There are also hints of a deeper anxiety that may have prompted Milton to be so eager to impress his counterpart. Though Milton was Diodati's senior by several months, he matriculated at Cambridge University fully two years after Diodati matriculated at Oxford University (Dorian 102). Charles attended Trinity College at Oxford University and Milton Christ's College at Cambridge. Milton and Diodati had known each other since their grammar school days at St. Paul's, and their close association and similarity of age and temperament would naturally have brought about a desire in Milton to keep pace academically with his friend. There are hints throughout Milton's poems of a growing sense of anxiety over belatedness (see Sonnet 19 for example), and Elegy I may be an early attempt at allaying that fear. Translation and introduction by Glenn Buchberger and Thomas H. Luxon.

Phoebus's sons. Phoebus Apollo is the patron god of, among other things, poetry. Milton and Diodati maintained long-range contact through Latin and Greek verse epistles, a practice most likely fostered by the humanist curriculum of St. Paul's where the two boys attended grammar school together.

father's house. Literally, the paternal household gods. Milton's use is a classical one. The household gods were often used as metonymy in classical writing for the home itself.

poet exiled in the fields of Tomis. Milton refers here to Ovid. The poet was banished to Tomis on the Black Sea by Emperor Augustus in 8 C.E. He died in exile, never having been recalled by the emperor, in 17 C.E. It is still unclear exactly why Augustus banished the poet he had held in such high regard at the start of his reign. See Britannica articles on Ovid and Augustus.

Maro. The cognomen, or surname, of Virgil, author of the Aeneid. See Britannica.

serpentine theater. We have deliberately chosen the "serpentine" sense of the word sinuosi to draw attention to Milton's ambivalent attitude towards the theater. He is entertained by it but at the same time he perceives that there is something slightly diabolical about the shape-shifting actors and the dimly lit arcades of the theater.

barbarisms. Milton frowned upon the combination of classical, medieval, and vulgar Latin used in courtrooms. His own writing is strictly classical in usage (with a few exceptions) and he had great contempt for people who spoke or wrote unclassical Latin.

Pelopeian house. House of Pelops. This mythical family was doomed to misfortune and tragedy by a curse brought down upon it by the misdeeds of its founding ancestor. For a good summary of the story, see a Summary of Mycenean Myths from the University of Houston.

house of Ilus. The royal house of Troy, also known as Ilium. This family, like that of Pelops, was plagued by misfortune, culminating in the capture and destruction of Troy by the Greeks; see a moving version of the story in Virgil's Aeneid book 2.

palace of Creon. Milton refers to the Oedipus story. Oedipus, in compensation for saving the city of Thebes from the Sphinx, was made ruler of the city (the position had been vacant since Laius, the former ruler was killed) and was married to Jocasta, Laius's widow. It is later revealed that Jocasta is Oedipus's mother and that Oedipus was actually the person who killed Laius (his father). It is the incest between Oedipus and his mother that taints the palace of Creon. Creon would assume power in Thebes after the incestuous pair had been removed. The story is the plot of Sophocles's most famous tragedy, Oedipus Tyrannus.

us. Milton refers to himself here using a plural construction. This generates a sarcastically formal, even regal, tone. Both Flannagan and Hughes Complete Poems also maintain the plural sense of Milton's text despite the obvious self-reference.

necks whiter. Pelops was killed by his father and served to the gods at a dinner party. The gods discovered the crime, but not until Demeter had eaten Pelops's shoulder, which they then replaced with ivory. See Ovid's Metamorphoses 6

Hyacinth. A familiar purple flower named after the beautiful youth beloved of Apollo. The boy was tragically killed when accidentally struck by a discus thrown by Apollo while the two were playing. Some versions of the myth maintain that Zephyrus, god of the west wind blew on the discus to drive it toward Hyacinth because he was jealous of the boy's love for the other god. His blood stained the flower which now bears his name. (It has been noted, though, that the flower that we call the hyacinth was not extant in Ancient Greece, and so, the flower of Hyacinth was probably a different blossom.)

your flower, Adonis. This purple flower is known as the anemone. In classical mythology, the flower was created by Venus from the blood that fell from her love, Adonis, after he was gored in the groin by a wild boar. In Ovid's version of the myth in Metamorphoses 10.735, Adonis resists Venus's advances, causing the goddess to dress herself like Artemis so she may participate in his hunting. Though Venus warned Adonis not to hunt wild animals with tusks, the youth hunted a wild boar anyway, a mistake that cost him his life.

the heavenly way. Literally, "the way tinctured with nectar." Milton most likely refers to what we now call the Milky Way.

Heroides. Ovid's collection of fictitious letters, entitled The Heroides, supposedly written by mythological women who had been abandoned by their lovers.

Achaemenian girls with turrets. Achaemenes founded the Persian dynasty whose capital was Susa which was founded by Tithonus. Tithonus was Memnon's father. Milton uses the names of these people and places as metanyms for Persia, but he specifically refers to the women of Persia. Persian women often wore headpieces that resembled the turrets on fortifications. Shortly before Milton's birth the fashion became very popular among Englishwomen.

Susa. The capital of the Persian dynasty.

Arsanian gowns. A metonymic expression meaning Greek women.

Endymion's goddess. According to Greek myth, the moon goddess Selene saw the sleeping shepherd Endymion one night and fell in love with him. Wanting to visit him each night, she asked Zeus to allow the shepherd to live forever. Zeus granted her request, but since Endymion was always asleep he never knew Selene's love for him. Some modern tellings of this story erroneously substitute Artemis for Selene. Selene was the goddess who carried the moon on her back across the sky, properly giving her the name Phoebe, while Artemis was the goddess of the waxing moon and the hunt. See also the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Cnidus. A penninsular city in Asia Minor between the islands Cos and Rhodes. See Cities and Locations of Ancient Greece.

Simois, and Paphos. Simois was a river on the Trojan plain. It was also the name of a minor river god. Paphos was a Greek island believed to be sacred to Venus.

blind boy. A euphemism for Cupid or Amor.

forced into alternating measures. Milton acknowledges that he has forced the words of his letter into the alternating dactylic hexameters and pentameters of elegiac verse.